Suicide Essay Research Paper SUICIDEEmile Durkheim was

Suicide Essay, Research Paper


Emile Durkheim was born in the eastern French province of Lorraine on April 15, 1858. He was the son of a rabbi and descended from a long line of rabbis. He decided to become a rabbi like his father. He studied Hebrew, the Old Testament, and the Talmud while going to school. Soon after, he decided he did not believe in what he was taught and moved away from his involvement in religion. During the time of graduation, he decided to dedicate his life to the scientific study of society. Durkheim started a career in philosophy because schools were not teaching the subject of sociology. He introduced the system and hypothetical framework of accurate social science. Emile Durkheim has often been seen as the founder of professional sociology. Durkheim wanted people to see sociology as professional and scientific like other traditional social sciences. According to Herbding and Glick (1996), Durkheim was the first sociologist to engage in large scale scientific research. (Pg. 9) In order to do this, he argued that it was important to state clearly the domain or area of study for sociology. He said that sociology should be concerned with social processes. Also, this should be separated from the psychological and individual areas. Emile Durkheim made many contributions to the study of society: The Division of Labor, Rules of Sociological Method, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, and Suicide. The focus of this paper will be to describe Durkheim s views of suicide. In the paragraphs that follow, I plan to discuss Durkheim s examination of extra-social causes, social causes and social types, and suicide as a social phenomenon. But first, we need to briefly define suicide.

What is suicide? The American Heritage Dictionary (1983) defines it as, The act or an instance of intentionally killing oneself. (Pg. 680). Durkheim (1951) defined suicide, as applied to all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result. (Pg. 44) Now that we have defined suicide, we should begin to discuss the extra-social causes.

According to Jones (1986), Durkheim discusses two kinds of extra-social causes. (pg.87) First, in the psychological frame of an individual, there is a tendency that is normal or pathological, that leads people to commit suicide. Second, cosmic factors might have the same effect. Jones (1986) says, insanity is seen as a disease that is relatively stable for a society and variable from one society to another. (84) Suicide as a consequence of insanity would account for that stability. Durkheim said suicides are not a consequence of insanity and he wanted to eliminate insanity as a probable cause of suicide. He dismissed the fact that suicide is a special form of insanity by classifying suicidal insanity as a monomania, which is a form of mental illness limited to a single act or object. He argued that there is no example of monomania that exists. He rejected the view that suicide is simply an effect of various types of insanity because all suicides committed by insane people are either free from consideration and motive or based on motives that are hallucinatory. So, there are many suicides that are not connected with insanity.

As for psychopathic conditions like neurasthenia and alcoholism, Durkheim concluded these conditions might predispose individuals to commit suicide, but it is never in itself a good cause of the permanent and variable suicide rates. According to the Scandinavian Sociological Association (1991), Durkhiem sees alcohol as an individual problem rather than that of society. He believes there is no correlation between alcoholism and suicide. Although, it is argued that the rate of alcohol abuse in society is a social fact and can be explained beyond the individual suicides. (Pg. 193)

Next, he paid attention to race and heredity. Durkheim dismissed the idea of race as a cause for suicide. He said there was differences in social suicide rates seen in each social type. He rejected heredity because the fact that suicide regularly appears in the same family can be explained by other causes like contagion. Plus, within racial types, there are patterns in the variations between husbands and wives, which would make this idea unexplainable. Lester (1990) says that whites commit suicide twice as much as blacks. (222) Stack (1998) goes on to say that when blacks are frustrated, they tend to blame society or others and show their aggression in the form of violence. Whites, on the other hand, cannot blame society for their social and economic failures. So, when whites become frustrated, they are more likely than blacks to blame themselves. In turn, they are more likely to turn their aggression toward themselves and commit suicide. (53)

Cosmic factors, according to Durkheim, didn t have any influence either. Climate or seasonal temperatures have no effect. Durkheim s observations show that suicide increases when social life is more active and decreases when activity decreases.

Another psychological theory was imitation. Imitation exists when the immediate antecedent of an act is the representation of like act, previously performed by someone else; with no explicit or implicit mental operation which bears upon the intrinsic nature of the act reproduced intervening between representation and execution. (Spaulding and Simpson 129) Imitation is a psychological phenomenon, not a social one. So, imitation is an insufficient cause for changes in the suicide rate. In fact, it s not a real cause of individual suicides either. Although, in recent research, Stack (1989b) explored the impact of publicized mass murders followed by the killer s suicide, on the suicide rate. An analysis of mass murder suicides that were covered on two or more network TV news found that they were associated with a significant increase in suicide in the world. (Pg. 5)

What Durkheim has done is basically eliminate alternative explanations. He explained how extra-social causes are not explanations for suicide. Suicide is a collective phenomenon and depends on social causes. But, it can only be seen in through individual suicides. So, Durkheim classified suicides into different types and looked at the social conditions responsible for them.

According to Herbding and Glick (1996), egoistic suicide occurs when participation in group life is limited along with the emotional attachments and supports that participation includes. (209)

Durkheim looked at what causes of the variations in suicide rates could be found in religious confessions, family, and politics. First, he looked at how the different religious confessions affected suicide. Coser (1971) says Durkheim studied how the groups created solidarity among their members in order to explain the differential rates of suicide in religious and occupational groups. He noted that where Protestants were most numerous the suicide rate was highest, and where Catholics were it was much lower; where Jews there was even lower. Protestant religion gives more freedom to thought and to the individual because there are fewer commonly accepted beliefs and practices. It allows free inquiry into the interpretation of the bible. Durkheim concluded that Protestants would experience more isolation and less integration into a church. (130) With free inquiry and more knowledge, suicide increases. According to Jones (1986), Durkheim concluded that Protestants would experience more isolation and less integration into a church. Therefore, there is less suicide. The Jews, on the other hand, are more educated. But, they don t learn things to replace their traditional beliefs; they do it to protect themselves from those with more knowledge, says Jones. (90) All of this, according to Durkheim, means free inquiry and knowledge result in the decline of traditional beliefs and lead to suicide. According to some recent research, Breault (1982) says there is no evidence that says Jews commit suicide less than Catholics or Catholics less than Protestants. But he goes on to say that regardless of denomination, church membership is negatively correlated with suicide in the sixty largest Standard Metropolitan Statistical areas. Although Durkheim s argument is wrong, the driving force of his theory could be right because religious commitment does guard against suicide. (322)

Next, Durkheim turned to the family. He noticed that marriage had an effect against suicide, but it was limited to men. In recent research, Stack (1998) analyzed individual data and it showed that divorced women of almost every age group are at risk of suicide. The extent of this risk relative to married women is about the same as the extent of risk of divorced men relative to married men. (20) Jones (1986) says that when one partner dies, the one remaining loses some of that immunity of suicide. (Pg. 91) Although, when the family size increases, so does the immunity to suicide. This is due to the fact that there are more family members to help the individual through the hard times. Breault and Barkley (1982) found a strong relationship between family integration and suicide. This study focused on only one year, but the measure of family integration that was used in this study is not similar in all the countries that were analyzed. These comparisons should be made in western countries that are more advanced and where divorce laws are pretty much the same. (633)

Finally, according to Jones (1986), Durkheim examined political societies and found that suicide increases as society grows and fully develops. As opposed to this, during wars or other social disturbances, the suicide rate declines. (Pg. 91) This is because people collectively get together and concentrate on solving the problem. But, when society gets weak, for whatever reason, the individual depends less on the group and more on himself. This produces the egoistic suicide. They suffer, because detachment wounds, and some seek to escape this suffering in death. But their death sums up their identity: they die as solitary beings, cut off from meaningful social life. (Cladis 64) So, each individual is influenced by society in many ways. But, when they separate from it, they become depressed and fall victim to egoistic suicide.

Herbding and Glick (1996) say that altruistic suicide results from too much integration into a group or society. The person is so caught up that he or she would be willing to kill themselves if the values of the group required it. (209)

Durkheim says that altruistic suicide occurs when there is a strong regulation of individuals. They are, in a way, absorbed into a group or society. The individual feels

obliged to commit suicide. In all such cases man kills himself not because he esteems life, but because the ideal to which he clings requires this sacrifice. (Halls 191) This is usually found in primitive cultures. For example, in Hindu societies women commit suicide by throwing themselves on their husbands funeral pyre (Jones 92). They do this because they fear being dishonored. People who commit altruistic suicide have personalities with little value. Durkheim (1951) called this obligatory altruistic suicide because people feel it s their duty to take their own lives. There are more types of altruistic suicide that are not imposed by society. There is a form of optional suicide that one commits because there is a social prestige attached to it. (Pg. 222) Someone will kill himself without being forced to. Society will not force them, but it is favorable to them. In this case, holding on to life is not seen as a good quality. So, someone who kills himself for some simple reason, for example, is praised for doing so. These people don t cherish life and despise those who do. Another form of altruistic suicide occurs where and individual kills himself for the joy of it. (Pg. 225) It is considered praiseworthy. These people have goals that are outside of life. Therefore, this life is just an obstacle. This belief depends on a beautiful life beyond this one. This and the other forms of altruistic suicide disregard the individual and put his faith in something beyond him.

Anomic Suicide, according to Herbding and Glick (1996), is a lack of integration between cultural goals and the availability of means to attain those goals. (206)

Anomie is a condition in which an individual s desires are no longer regulated by society s common norms and where, individuals are left without moral guidance in the pursuit of their goals. When people have a set of meaningful goals and have a set of regulated rules and norms, suicide will be in decline. But, when goals lose their effectiveness and meaning or can t be achieved because something has changed, suicide will increase. Keel (2000) says when the individual has no guidance or limitations, society can t control the behavior of its members because of a lack of regulatory constraints. (Keel, Internet) If the idea of society were extinguished in individual minds and beliefs, traditions and aspirations of the group were no longer felt and shared by the individuals, society would die. (Swain 389) Without boundaries, limits, and norms, the individual life becomes meaningless and their behavior becomes uncontrollable. The result is anomic suicide. Levin (1999) says that anomie can happen through several ways. War, a physical disaster, a dramatic drop in income, or losing a family member are some examples. (9) Social change can create anomie. Any rapid movement in the social structure that changes the lifestyle of an individual brings a chance of anomie. This is because it increases the sense of aimlessness, and makes goals and norms unworkable. According to Kenneth Thompson (1982), Durkheim divided anomic suicide into four categories: acute and chronic economic anomie, and acute and chronic domestic anomie. (Pg. 109) He describes acute economic anomie as, occasional decreases in the ability of traditional institutions to regulate and fulfill social needs. (Pg. 109). For example, religion, which once helped the poor and restricted the material ambitions of the rich, has lost most of its power. Also, Jones (1986) says government, which once restrained economic functions, is now their servant. (92) Thompson (1982) says, chronic economic anomie is the breaking down of social regulation. Durkheim identified this with the industrial revolution, which helped destroy traditional social regulators and often failed to replace them. Industrial goals of wealth and property were not enough to provide happiness. This was demonstrated by higher suicide rates among the rich than the poor. (pg.109) Acute domestic anomie was the sudden changes on the microsocial level, which resulted in an inability to adapt, which produced higher suicide rates. (Pg. 110) For example, if divorce is difficult or impossible to obtain, the differences between suicide rates increased. Durkheim thought that the more regulating a marriage was, the less the divorce rate and the less suicide. Finally, Kenneth says chronic domestic anomie refers to the way marriage regulates the sexual and behavioral means and needs balance among men and women. Marriage gives different regulations for each. Bachelors committed suicide more than married men because of lack of regulation and established goals and expectations. Although, marriage has traditionally served to over regulate the lives of women by restricting opportunities and goals. So, unmarried women don t experience chronic domestic anomie as often as unmarried men. (Pg. 110) Each of these involves an imbalance of means and needs, where means were unable to fulfill needs.

Fatalistic suicide is only briefly described. It is a rare phenomenon. It refers to that situation when there is too much regulation and the norms imposed externally are very great. It is the situation when people s futures are blocked and they are oppressed. Some examples would be slaves, childless married women, and young husbands. They had in common over regulated, unrewarding lives. They had too many rules and controls. This led to fatalistic suicide.

Durkheim found no relation between the type of suicide and the nature of the suicidal acts. The choice of suicidal means is determined by social causes, but the causes that lead someone to commit suicide in a particular way are different from those that lead one to kill himself in the first place. The culture of some societies makes death easier than others. Even though they are dependent on social causes, the form of the suicidal act and the nature of suicide itself are unrelated.

Suicide can only be explained as a collective phenomenon. Egoistic suicide refers to the types that result from high individualism because society is not integrated enough. Under the circumstances, the decision to commit suicide can be sad or cheerful. As opposed to this, altruistic suicide is an active suicide, with calmness. Anomic suicide is different. It deals with unregulated emotions or the disappointment following disturbances in regulation. These different social conditions can also affect the individual at the same time and produce combined affects. Egoism and anomie some resemblance. The egoist is separated from society and doesn t have a good hold on him or herself. Anomie can also be related to altruism. Finally, egoism and altruism can combine their influence.

So, suicide is socially determined and independent from the individual. The collective tendencies that are responsible for suicide have a mind of their own; they are moral and social. Social life is external to the individual. Since the necessary conditions of life are useful, suicide is likely to occur. Social regulation and integration are needed in any society. If societies place high value on the individual or constrain him, suicide results from those social states. But, the large increase in the number of suicides over the last century is due to the particular conditions under which progress has actually occurred. These conditions are pathological. So, the present rate of suicide is pathological.

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